Search form

Last updated: 14 min 11 sec ago

You are here


The Middle East’s role in Turkey-EU relations

Is Turkey part of Europe or the Middle East? This question has become something of a cliché, with the answer usually solely about geography and lacking a clear explanation.
Geographically, Turkey stands in between the two regions, forming a line that clearly divides Europe from the Middle East. Turkey’s geostrategic position, in addition to its historical and cultural ties with both sides leads the country to serve as a bridge between the East and the West.
Turkey is, indeed, part of both Europe and the Middle East, and therefore is affected by developments taking place in both regions. Since the establishment of the republic in 1923, Turkey’s traditional foreign policy has had two main dimensions: Forming strong ties with the West, particularly the EU, and having peaceful relations with the Middle Eastern countries, without engaging in the region’s problematic issues.
EU negotiations
In accordance with this foreign policy line, Ankara applied for membership of the European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU, in 1987. The EU accession talks began in 2005 during the first term of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the office. However, negotiations reached a stalemate in 2007 during the second term. It was at these times that Turkey started to engage more in Middle Eastern issues. However, this also coincided with the turmoil in the region.
Turkey’s relations with the EU have gone through major ups and downs during the decades-old relationship. Beside Turkey’s own internal issues, the Middle East has played a considerable, sometimes adverse, role in Turkish-EU relations.
Throughout the 1990s, Europe’s lack of support of Turkey’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Western countries’ turning blind eye to the sheltering of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in Greece, Italy and Syria caused troubles in Turkish-EU relations at times. Europe’s double standards and its failure to take Turkey’s concerns seriously have created mistrust on the Turkish side.
The conflicts of the Arab world should not be a matter of tension between Ankara and the European bloc, but rather a significant reason to cooperate.
Sinem Cengiz
Arab uprisings
The Arab Spring of 2011, which resulted in unprecedented developments in the Middle East, dealt a further blow to Turkish-EU relations. Europe’s slow and contradictory response and lack of strategy toward the countries affected by the Arab uprisings was highly criticized by Turkey, which took an active stance toward developments in the region.
Thus, the rhetorical differences between Turkey and the EU toward the developments in Egypt, Libya and Syria drove a wedge between the two sides. 
Further developments in the Middle East — particularly the “migration crisis” — have led to the opening of a new period in Turkey-EU relations.
The troubled realities of the Middle East — such as terrorism, political tensions, regional disputes and particularly illegal immigration — caused a great concern to the EU, and pushed it to cooperate with Turkey.
In 2015, the EU, which aims to keep refugees fleeing from war-torn Syria from migrating to Europe, signed a deal on migration management with Turkey, which had pursued an open-door policy to the refugees since the beginning of the crisis.
According to this deal, Turkey would take back all migrants from Greece, in exchange for a €6 billion aid package to help Turkey in hosting refugees in the country, and the promise to lift visa requirements for Turks traveling to the Schengen area. However, Turkey has so far received only €677 million and no progress has been made regarding the visa obligations, despite Turkey’s efforts to stop refugee flow.
Escalating diplomatic feud
In addition to the EU’s dubious policies, Turkey-EU relations took a turn for the worse in recent days after several European countries canceled rallies planned by Turkish officials campaigning to gain support from Turks living in Europe for a constitutional referendum scheduled to take place on April 16. 
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey will review its relationship with the EU after the referendum.
In light of this escalating diplomatic feud the migration deal came onto the agenda again. Frustrated with the EU not keeping its promises regarding the migrant deal, Turkey said it will “reevaluate” the refugee deal, hinting that it would scrap it. Turkey’s foreign minister cited delays in visa liberalization as one of the reasons behind Ankara’s decision.
Needless to say, the deal is of great importance to the EU in the light of growing instability in the Middle East; there have however been few benefits for Turkey so far. 
The migration crisis, which emerged from Middle Eastern conflicts, became key to a rapprochement between Turkey and the EU. Now it could hamper Turkey-EU relations, as Ankara feels that the cooperation only serves the interests of Europe, in shifting the Middle East burden instead of sharing it.
The European countries — which demand more, with no rewards for Ankara — should approach Turkey with a sincere attitude and consider the country as a partner amid the growing uncertainties in the Middle East. 
The conflicts of the region should not be a matter of tension in Turkish-EU relations; but a significant reason to cooperate, taking into consideration the concerns of both sides. 
The growing mutual distrust will not serve the interests of Ankara nor the EU — and may harm the work done toward Turkey’s membership process over the years.
Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.  She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz.